The truncated turnaround time been known for some time. It is only now, as England’s players return home contemplating opportunities missed, that the reality of the physical and mental challenge facing them is agonisingly apparent.
Some will hope to carry the momentum back to their clubs, buoyed by an experience that elevated their status. For others, even those anxious to return to the field and create new memories – different memories – the next game might feel jarringly soon.
There is little time to pause and reflect. Thirty-three nights passed between England’s penalty shootout defeat to Italy in the European Championship final at Wembley and the start of the Premier League season. The Boxing Day fixtures are a fortnight away.
Harry Kane has three away days against London clubs within a month of the restart, a trip to Manchester City and the visit of Arsenal. The expectation, the demand from employers and supporters, will be that players refocus but how realistic is that with so much invested?
The World Cup maintains an outsized importance in the football calendar. It is patriotism but it is also its rarity. Players cry when an injury robs them of attending this tournament and they frequently cry again when they exit it. Club competition never seems to stop.
“Hopefully I can get a bit of rest,” said Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu following Japan’s penalty shootout defeat to Croatia. “I need time to forget about football.” But his side are top of the Premier League and pursuing ambitions of their own.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger once admitted to playing Alexis Sanchez too soon after the player won the Copa America with Chile. “Every player who has won a big trophy with the national team takes some while to settle and come back to his best.”
Sanchez had failed to score in eight games upon his return. But his first start for Arsenal had come fully 43 days after that triumph in South America. Look 43 days beyond England’s defeat to France and some Premier League teams will have had to play seven games.
And Sanchez won. Most do not.
Some of them are still in Qatar. For Lisandro Martinez, Cristian Romero, Julian Alvarez, Emiliano Martinez and Alexis Mac Allister, the Premier League players in the Argentina squad, this journey will have taken its toll on body and soul whatever happens next.
Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic and Tottenham’s Ivan Perisic have already been involved in extra-time for Croatia against Japan and Brazil. If Raphael Varane starts France’s semi-final, it will be his fifth start in 19 days – something he has not yet done at Manchester United.
Whether it is Varane pushing his body to the limit or his international teammate Hugo Lloris chasing the immortality that would come with becoming the first man to lift the World Cup as captain twice, will they really be at their physical or mental peak on return?
Is that even part of the plan?
The very best plot their way through the year, trying to ensure they produce top form when it matters most. Routinely, that comes at the end of the season. This World Cup has been scheduled in the middle of it and so players have adjusted to that accordingly.
“This World Cup is an obsession,” said Kylian Mbappe recently. “I built my season on this competition physically and mentally. I wanted to arrive ready and for ‘the right now’.”
His Paris Saint-Germain teammate Lionel Messi does not just want this, he needs it. A nation needs it. It is as if a life has led to this moment. But when it is done, life must go on.
In the coming days, there will be disappointment for Messi or for Mbappe or maybe even for both. And yet, PSG will need to convince the pair to pool their efforts to deliver the Champions League prize that they crave and are paying them to deliver.
It is an unprecedented situation and nobody knows quite what to expect. Injuries seem inevitable. For Arsenal’s Gabriel Jesus that has already happened. Galatasaray probably should not expect to see Morocco captain Romain Saiss on the pitch any time soon.
It is an advantage, surely, for those who have not had to expend so much of their energy in Qatar. Manchester City’s Erling Haaland and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah would love to have been there but may now be set to reap the benefits of having missed out.
For those who have lived it, the euphoria and the heartbreak, the World Cup can be a life-altering experience. But it is has never been more obvious that the football never stops.
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